Israel, Palestine, Jordan
“It is when people understand the benefits of cross border solutions that they are more likely to cooperate and work together.”
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director, GWN
When one thinks of places like the Jordan River Valley, Biblical images of abundant, clean waters, fertile farmlands, and lush vegetation may come to mind. Today’s reality, however, is very different. Conflict in this region has meant that Israel, Jordan, and Syria have all played their part in diverting water and building dams to maximize their own benefits. As a result, the Jordan River’s volume is down by 98%. And, a significant portion of what is left now includes residential sewage, fish pond effluents, and agricultural run off. In light of this reality—and the knowledge that conflict was causing long-term damage to a sensitive ecosystem— The “Good Water Neighbors (GWN)” project was established by Friends of the Earth-Middle East in 2001. While the aim was to raise awareness of the shared water problems of Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis, a community-based design has also brought together hundreds of people from diverse social, economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds to search for solutions.
Although 11 Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian communities participated in Phase I of the project from 2001 to 2005, there are now 25 communities involved in GWN. Each community is twinned with a cross-border partner. They focus on supporting shared water resources in the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, and the Mountain and Coastal Aquifers in Israel and Palestine. The process has involved hiring a local coordinator—who has the trust of communities—to identify concerned citizens. Once these groups form, they develop a “Green Map” of the main environmental hazards in their communities related to water. From these consultations, a common cross-border water problem is identified for each pair of neighboring communities. Finally, gatherings of individuals from neighboring communities meet at least twice a year (including youth “water trustees,” residents, hydrology and planning professionals, and decision-makers) to develop common action plans.
Developing a culture of environmental awareness has been a major part of GWN’s work and has been the precursor to a number of subsequent urban development projects. Changing environmental behaviors in local communities has been a first step. Youth volunteers (known as water trustees) are identified in each community and have played a big role in developing Eco Parks as well implementing water saving programs in schools, including rainwater collection and recycling of gray water. A lot of awareness-raising activities, workshops, and site visits—for core audiences of youth, residents, and municipal leaders—set the foundation for community-based projects initially and, later, for joint and cross-border commitments to specific urban development projects (see “Outcomes” below).
While bringing together of hundreds of people for cross-border consultations in a conflict zone has been an accomplishment in itself, there have also been a number of tangible development outcomes. In Tulkarem (in Palestine), for example, a rehabilitated sewage treatment system was installed to solve the problem of untreated sewage from flowing into the municipality of Emek Hefer (in Israel) and polluting the river that connects both communities. Environmentally-concerned residents in the communities of the Wadi Fukin Valley (in Palestine) and Tzur Hadassah (in Israel) have, to date, gotten enough public support to succeed in preventing the Separation Barrier from being built between these communities based on the environmental damage it would create—primarily related to an aquifer that is an important resource to both sides. And, development is underway for a Peace Park on a small island formed where the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers meet. The site is planned to be an eco-tourism destination between Jordanian and Israeli borders that will contribute both to conservation and economic development.
Information from GWN, claims that a key challenge for the project has been to “find community groups willing to work with the other side.” In Palestine and Jordan, for example, ‘blacklists’ existed against people working in a cooperative framework with Israelis, or intimidation tactics were used. Real threats were faced by individuals involved in the projects. “In more general terms,” said GWN, “distrust and outrage over violent acts on both sides was seen as a major obstacle to enlisting community involvement.” Even once trust was developed through the aegis of the projects, the political situation sometimes meant that cross border meetings needed to be postponed until tensions subsided. Overcoming security barriers remains a challenge.
The projects took time to develop as, at least initially, communities were not willing to work together. Cross-border partnerships, however, eventually became not only possible, but desirable. Good leadership helped. Influential community leaders or mayors played an important role in helping communities see the importance of protecting shared water resources. Of course, leaders would sometimes change or be reluctant and, in these cases, the cooperation really needed to come from the residents of the community who pushed for water concerns to be put on local agendas. GWN has some advice too for donors: “If the underlying cause of poverty and underdevelopment in a region is conflict and violence, then investments undertaken solely to promote poverty relief and infrastructure development will lead to little more than ‘band-aid’ solutions. Donor agencies need to adopt a broader strategy that combines and integrates conflict resolution and development aid. To do this, donor agencies need to identify measures to involve both sides of a conflict in the development of a program, preferably at a cross-border community level.”
Interview Sources/Additional Links
Michal Sagive, Project Coordinator – Good Water Neighbors
Photo: Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinians jump into the Jordan River as part of the “Big Jump” event; FOEME.